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Rukmini Devi: The Woman Who Revived Bharatnatyam

The women who chose dancing over being the President of India

  • Rukmini Devi met Anna Pavlova, a ballerina, who inspired her to dance.
  • She revived the art-form of Bharatanatyam which was earlier associated with only the Devadasi community.
  • The women who refused the offer to become president, so she could continue with dance.

Bharatanatyam, an Indian classical dance form, one of the most widespread in India today. Several institutes of Indian art forms have Bharatnatyam as a special course. It is adored, respected and is extremely popular in the Indian society. However, not many people know that once it was considered ‘vulgar’, and a ‘low-caste practice’ as it was limited to Devadasis.

Not until a married woman from a Brahmin family adopted the dying art form and eventually revived it, was Bharatnatyam came to be accepted in ‘Bharat’. She was Rukmini Devi, the women who established Kalakshetra Academy.

You may also like: Traditional dance representing cross-cultural connection of India and Paisley 

Anna Palova was the one who inspired Rukmini Devi for the art of dance. Wikimedia commons
Anna Palova was the one who inspired Rukmini Devi for the art of dance. Wikimedia Commons

A ballerina

Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova was in Bombay in 1928. Rukmini Devi and her husband, a prominent British theosophist Dr. George Arundale, had gone to see her performance.

Later, the couple was on the same ship as her to their journey to Australia, where Pavlova was to perform next. Rukmini and Anna become close friends during the journey. Soon Rukmini started learning dance from Anna’s leading solo dancers, Cleo Nordi.

Eventually, on the advice of Anna, she started discovering Indian dance forms which were dying. Her life would remain dedicated to the objective of reviving these arts.

Bharatnatyam is an art form revived by Rukmini Devi. Wikimedia commons
Bharatnatyam is an art form revived by Rukmini Devi. Wikimedia Commons

The first performance

It was at the Annual Conference of Madras Music Academy, in 1933, that Rukmini Devi saw, for the first time, a performance of Sadhir (Bharatnatyam).

And in 1935, she gave her first public performance at the Diamond Jubilee Convention of the Theosophical Society.

This event was noted in history. It received widespread attention. There was some confusion and remaining anger within conservative sections of the society.

Though the major mark was, it opened gates for an average Indian girl to enter the dance form and cherish it. It somehow was the beginning of a reverse effect.

Read more: Ramli Ibrahim: A Malaysian steeped in Indian classical dances 


Bharatnatyam was earlier associated to the Devadais. Wikimedia commons
Bharatnatyam was earlier associated with the Devadasi. Wikimedia Commons

Bharatnatyam is a form which is at the center of global attention, Rukmini Devi had an unmistakable role in this.

  • She was successful in eliminating the extraneous ‘Sringaar’ and eroticism from the dance form, which was a legacy of Devadasis.
  • She introduced various new elements. For example musical instruments like violin, set and lighting design elements, innovative costume, and jewelry that was inspired by temple sculptures.
  • Dance dramas based on epics like Ramayana and Gita Govinda were a result of Rukmini Devi’s associated with noted scholars and artists with whom she collaborated.

Kalakshetra Academy

Rukmini Devi, along with her husband, established Kalakshetra academy of music and dance. It functioned under the Gurukul system.

Today, the academy is a deemed university having a 100-acre campus. It is considered one of the best and most reputed universities for learning classical Indian art forms.

Names like Radha Burnier, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Yamini Krishnamurthy have emerged from Kalakshetra.



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